Saturday in the Catskills ushered in a chilly preview of fall weather along with Day Two of All Tomorrow’s Parties. On deck were two stages full of bands hand-picked by the All Tomorrow’s Parties staff to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of their festival series (which began in the UK with the Bowlie Weekender curated by Belle & Sebastian in 1999). In addition to the two stages full of premium indie rock, there were also trivia games, a cinema organized by the Criterion Collection, a book club, a film discussion with Thurston Moore and Jim Jarmusch, and various other fun distractions peppered through-out the Kutshers Resort.
Kutshers is an aged relic of the Borscht Belt and serves as the perfect spot for ATP NY every year. Imagine the hotel from Dirty Dancing gone the way of The Shining and you get a good idea of what this sprawling complex looks and feels like. The years of wear and tear show on every surface in the place, including in the Starlight Ballroom (main stage) and the Dining Room (second stage). The whole place feels like ATP found this former Class-A resort in a thrift shop somewhere. It has got the perfect level of funkiness and seclusion to make the whole ATP weekend feel like you are one of the castaways in an indie-music version of LOST. I staked my camp in the Starlight Ballroom all-day on Saturday to take in an unbelievably cool array of quality acts.
Sian Alice Group: I knew nothing about this UK group before festival’s line-up was announced. The description provided by ATP piqued my interest but it was a strong endorsement from a friend that convinced me to show up early on Saturday afternoon to catch this first set of the day. After my buddy gave me the recommendation, I thought it might be fun to go in completely cold to the band, so I did not track down their music or read about them before the show.
Once you walk into the Starlight Ballroom at Kutshers, regardless of what time it is or what the weather is like outside, you are at the complete mercy of ATP productions and the band on stage. Neither natural light nor sound can penetrate those walls, allowing ATP to rig the room with possibly the best sound system I have ever heard and to put on terrific light shows. Sian Alice Group took full advantage of both the lights and sound control to put on an early afternoon set that teleported the crowd into some kind of subterranean cavern of cool. Bathed in blue light, the profiles of this surprisingly large band surrounded Sian Ahern, the group’s beautiful lead singer. Shrouded in fog and light, Sian delivered a vocal performance that was transcendent. Ranging from creepy to angelic, this powerful vocalist’s ethereal delivery cut right to the listener’s soul.
The band filled the Starlight’s perfect acoustics with their large post-rock/goth/shoegazer sound employing several guitars, an awesome drummer, multiple keyboards, and a multi-instrumentalist who worked with horns and flutes among other things. Sian Alice Group provided the most beautiful performance that I saw all weekend.
Beak>: Next up was one of my most anticipated bands of the festival, Beak>. Their debut album and follow-up EP are some of the best new music to come out of the UK in the past year. Combining a love of krautrock rhythm, electronic experimentation, atmospheric sound, and general weirdness Beak> have created a sound that is unique in the current music scene. Being composed of drummer Geoff Barrow (of Portishead), bassist Billy Fuller (of Fuzz Against Junk and Massive Attack), and keyboard madman Matt Williams (Team Brick) it is no surprise that Beak> generate music that borders on genius.
Having performed very little in public, Beak>’s live show was something of a mystery going into Saturday’s set. Part of me expected a free-form noise jam session, while the fanboy in me longed to hear the album tracks precisely recreated. Beak>’s set on Saturday was a propulsive jam that stuck surprisingly close to their recorded material. The album and EP tracks translated to the live setting with such a collaborative energy that one could easily have mistaken them for on-the-spot improvisation between three jam masters. Perhaps because Hallogallo (better known as Neu!) would be performing later in the day, Barrows’ motorik drumming seemed even more pronounced than on their albums. Fuller’s bass was undeniable as he provided deep grooves but also wrenched weirdo sound effects from his instrument. Williams alternated between keyboards and guitar for most of the set, although he and Barrows traded spots for at least one song. Beak>’s set was majestic aural strangeness shimmering with the special energy that only live performance can provide.
Tortoise: The last time I saw Tortoise in concert I described them as “somehow…simultaneously laid-back and intense”. Their musical complexity and stylistic contradictions combine to make for some of the most fascinating live performances one can witness. This group is as huge in its membership as it is in its influence on modern indie music. On Saturday, their instruments and band members filled the stage like an orchestra and their sound filled the room accordingly. Tortoise were out-of-control at ATP. I have never heard them sound so good live. First, volume and clarity. The ATP sound system and Tortoise go together like hamburgers and french fries. It was the loudest I had ever heard Tortoise play and within that loudness a subtle level of aggression emerged from their sound. Second, it was obvious that the men of Tortoise were having a blast playing for ATP’s 10th Anniversary and the music geek crowd. They said as much to close their set when they thanked ATP for the invitation to play.
The crowd listened in hushed reverence as Tortoise unloaded on us. Their dual-percussive, multi-keyboard, xylophone, electronic xylophone what’s-it thing, bass, and guitar extravaganza is always a joy to watch but on Saturday it was operating on an entirely different level. (PS- Tortoise are playing the Black Cat on September 12th)
Fuck Buttons: Another incredible offering from the UK, Fuck Buttons were there to satiate and annihilate the electronic music geek appetites of the weekend. Fuck Buttons are a band that I missed at ATP NY 2008; a mistake I was able to remedy this time around. This electronic noise duo of Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power have just been getting better and better with age. Their latest album “Tarot Sport” is an electronic masterpiece and their powerhouse set heavily featured material from it. Playing an hour-long set of teeth-rattling beats, distorted vocal screams, and beautiful synth lines Fuck Buttons continued the afternoon’s unofficial theme of intense collective teleportation.
I often cite music nirvana as that rare air place that great live music can take someone to. On Saturday afternoon music nirvana was the rule rather than the exception. Taking one look at my huge satisfied grin during this set, my wife told me afterwords that Fuck Buttons is the kind of band that I would probably create. Considering their penchant for walls of noise and unstoppable beats, she’s probably correct.
Hallogallo 2010 (Michael Rother & Friends present Neu! music): I caught Hallogallo 2010 in Philadelphia in early August during a warm-up gig and, as much as it pains me to say so, that was a better set than their ATP set. On the talent front with Michael Rother (Neu!, Harmonia, musical effin’ genius), Steve Shelley (of Sonic Youth on drums), and Arron Mullan (of Tall Firs on bass) Hallogallo 2010 are a stacked deck. Shelley fills in admirably for Neu!’s late drummer and motorik creator Klaus Dinger. And in Philadelphia their set of Neu!, Harmonia, and Rother solo material was a pitch perfect performance.
Their set at ATP, while equally tight, suffered from an odd sound mix that put Rother’s guitars way in the back. Rother plays guitar and runs a whole tabletop full of gizmos that are vital components to the Neu! sound. As much press as Dinger’s drumming received, Rother is his equal if not his superior in sonic contribution. So it was disappointing to discover that everything Rother did came across as muted on Saturday. Shelley’s awesome drum-work, while impressive, shouldn’t have been the sole focus of the show. It wasn’t that way in Philadelphia, so I can only assume there was some kind of mis-communication during sound-check. That said, even though Rother was muted and Shelley’s drums over-powered everything, the set was tight and you could clearly see the talent on display. I’m just glad that I made that drive to Philly a month ago to witness Hallogallo hit their stride.
Shellac: Shellac are known as the ATP house band and they have performed at almost every ATP festival in the US and the UK. As band leader Steve Albini famously said, “There are three things in the world that I endorse: Abbey Road Studios, Nutter Butter Sandwich Cookies and All Tomorrow’s Parties”. With all of the history between ATP and Shellac it was a no-brainer that they would perform at the 10th anniversary ATP and that their set would be a barn-burner.
Ditching their usual casual performance routine full of jokes and absurd audience Q&A’s, Shellac burned through their 45 minute set with punk energy behind their challenging brand of rock-n-roll. It was pretty spectacular to see Albini, Trainer, and Weston be all business for a change (well almost all business, their dismissal of their Q&A bit was pretty funny in its own right). The highlight of the set was hearing them perform the epic length ‘The End of Radio’ from their album “Excellent Italian Greyhound”. I saw them perform this 10-minute plus dirge at the Touch & Go 25th Anniversary festival and it is one of my favorite live performances of a single song. Their ATP NY 2010 version sounded great and while not as monumental as the T&G25 rendition, it one-upped that performance in the creepy department. Albini’s rants as the last broadcaster on earth echoed off of the Starlight Ballroom walls and ceiling sending chills down spines until the harsh blasts of guitar and bass pushed you back on your feet. Good show fellas.
The Breeders: While most of the sets on Saturday felt like next level happenings of the first order, The Breeders took the stage to deliver a messy and fun rock out session to clear the palate and provide the party. This was an Anniversary celebration after all! With good-humored delivery and huge beaming smiles all around, the Deal sisters and friends chugged through a set of old favorites and newer tunes that had minimal flow as set and felt more like a series of spunky outbursts. Between songs there were several slow instrument switches and line-up changes (they alternated between a 5-piece, a quartet, a three piece, and a six piece). So while the set never really “got going”, the high energy of the stand alone songs and the infectious high spirits of the band had the crowd beaming smiles right back at them. Like Mudhoney the night before, the early 90’s nostalgia was in full effect and it was the tracks from “The Last Splash” that had the biggest impact. My favorite part of their set was when they played one of my ATP wish-list songs, “No Aloha” – that song just flat out owns.
Explosions in the Sky: It wasn’t until I watched the stage crew load-in Explosions In The Sky’s Texas flag-draped amplifier that it hit me that I was about to see EITS for the fourth time. The ATP line-up so far (including Friday night) had been so cream-your-jeans awesome that by the time The Breeders were finished, I and a bunch of other folks I had met were sort of wandering around in a shell-shocked daze. The day’s events had been so fast and furious that with this momentary pause it was finally sinking in that all of this was really happening and possibly the best was yet to come.
Explosions In The Sky are probably the most successful American post-rock band. Thanks to the exposure that Friday Night Lights (the film and the tv series) provided, EITS has a huge following. I think it was indicative of an mid-00’s sea-change in music snobbery that the band weren’t immediately deemed sell-outs. EITS are a challenging band that managed to become successful while maintaining their artistic integrity and their street cred. No easy feat. Part of that delicate balance is the fact that EITS rush for no one. Taking their time with a new album, and going on a performance hiatus for awhile, their Saturday set was the first the world had heard from EITS in quite some time.
The boys didn’t really bring much new to the table. Instead they treated the ATP crowd to a little over an hour of that trademark quiet-loud-with-a-dash-of-Texas sound that we all love so much. I love it when instrumental rock songs elicit huge cheers from a crowd as soon as the first note gets dropped. That happened again and again during their set showing off the powerful emotional connection that the fans have with EITS very special music. Their set balanced beauty and power perfectly (as it always does) and reminded me of just how emotional EITS can get. It is the emotions they paint with sound that give EITS their edge. Post-rock is a cathartic genre and just about every band in it can slow-build and unleash, but only a select few can tug at your heart like Explosions In The Sky did on Saturday night.*
Sonic Youth: Okay Sonic Youth, what the hell? How is it possible that after all of these years of phenomenal shows you can still surprise me? Nay. Astonish me? Or to put it more accurately, how in holy hell are you still able to completely blow my fucking brains out in new, awe-inspiring, and frightening ways like you did on Saturday night?
Sonic Youth are a very special band. In my book they are the greatest American rock-n-roll band. Ever. I have seen them in concert a lot. More times than I can count on fingers or possibly recount in writing. I’ve seen them do the old stuff, I’ve seen them do their latest, and their greatest (literally I saw them do “Daydream Nation” in full…talk about EPIC). I have seen them have an off show and I have seen them play so hot that they could melt plastic by looking at it. Between my wife and I, if you add up all the Sonic Youth concerts we’ve seen together and separately, well, the number begins to border on obsession.** Going into their Saturday night headliner slot, we thought we had seen the gamut of Sonic Youth. Neither of us suspected that we were about to see the best Sonic Youth set of our lives.
There is just something insane about the sound system ATP rigs in that ballroom. It is perfectly balanced between power and nuance making everybody sound great and making the elite sound sent from heaven (or Hell if you’re talking Sleep or Altar). Sonic Youth have never sound better. Of that I am nearly certain. I am not the only music writer that noted this about Saturday’s set and I overheard tons of people at the festival commenting to the same effect. Part of what makes SY great is their ability to harness noise, raw electric energy, and hammer it into sound sculptures built on wire-frame song structure. So the better the noise factor, the better the sonics in a room, the better SY perfom. This was just one of the key factors in what put this set over all others that I have seen by Sonic Youth and by almost all others during ATP NY 2010.
Another factor is Thurston Moore. The guy just seems to really dig the music geek gathering nature of ATP weekends and he performed at the peak of his punk spunk front man powers. His seemed to be surrounded by a field of sparking energy that shot into the crowd and the rest of the band. Steve Shelley on drums for the second time in one evening was a machine. Pounding the kit like a mad man. Kim Gordon was the epitome of cool bass and delivered real vocal high points of the night. Particularly on ‘Shaking Hell’ where her damaged narrative persona seemed to posess her, I’ve heard her sing that one before but never, ever like that. Lee Ranaldo had performed earlier in the day as well (with his band Text Of Light) but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. Lee was rocking the guitars something fierce. In fact it is one of the few times I have seen him give Thruston a run for his money. A performance highlight for me was noting the fact that Lee, Thurston, AND Kim all used drum-sticks or bows to torture their axes during the course of the set.
The final factor in the greatness of Saturday night’s performance is the set list. I had heard from a friend that Sonic Youth were warming up some back catalog recently, but I honestly did not believe that they would forgo playing songs from the new album as well. I mean “The Eternal” is a very strong offering, right? I was totally gobsmacked, as were the majority of the crowd I think, by the fact that Saturday night’s set featured only Sonic Youth songs from the 1980’s. It was a monster set of Sonic Youth classics from their most raw sounding period. The set list was a SY music geek’s dream come true. These songs are so old that they sound new again. Take their incredibly vital sounding rendering of ‘Death Valley 69’ as an example. The way they played it on Saturday it was timeless. I guarantee that Thurston pulled for that set list as a special treat to the appreciative ATP attendees. The set heavily featured tunes from their first masterpiece “Daydream Nation”; each of which sounded butched up by ATP’s system and the manic energy of this special event. Even ‘Eric’s Trip’ came across bad ass. Other highlights of the set were an epic ‘Cross the Breeze’, and the one-two punch of ‘Catholic Block’ into ‘Stereo Sanctity’. Well, really to call these highlights is misleading. Let’s just say it was nice to hear these songs included. There really was no highlight to this set because the set itself was the highlight. Seeing one of the best sets ever by the best American rock band ever at one of the best music festivals in the world. That’s not just a highlight of the weekend. That’s a highlight of my whole life.
* Look at me getting all weepy.
** Spotting the Sonic Youth bumper sticker on her car during our first date was one of the many things that indicated that evening was the start of something special.